Green shoots are among the best things to eat
All this talk of green shoots these days is getting varied reactions. For some people it means hope of economic rebound, for others they are too fragile, or a false sign concealing deeper problems.
I���m talking about shoots here, not sprouts. The two are linked in the fresh taste of their growing vigour, but sprouts are the roots and frail stalks and leaves of germinated seeds and beans, while shoots are the new stem growths and young leaves of more mature plants. The two overlap with plants like mung and alfalfa, but in general sprouts are crunchier, slightly sweet and earthy, while shoots have deeper, more vegetable tastes.
These can be off-putting at times. For plants shoots are an important investment in new growth and they don���t want them eaten up. So shoots are often quite bitter or astringent, while some are outright poisonous. More commonly they are packed with oxalic acid which, if untreated, results in tingling, numbing feelings in your mouth and throat (and causes kidney stones). This can be removed by peeling and blanching, but this can become such a pain that any desire to eat the shoots disappears.
I bought two bamboo shoots the other day, beautiful purple-black in colour, thick and tapering. I peeled them down to their ivory cores, chopping off the parts that were too woody. As per the instructions given by a friend, I soaked it over two days in changes of water and then boiled it for ages, filling my kitchen with a faintly unpleasant smell, half varnish, half rotting vegetation. I finally got pale tan slices with an interesting texture, both firm and buttery. But it had no particular taste, making me wonder why I���d gone to all that trouble.
I���m probably doing something wrong, because I know there are wonderful bamboo shoot dishes in cuisine as far apart as Konkani and Mizo. I also remember Nilgiri���s in Bangalore used to sell an amazing Coorgi pickle of bamboo shoots preserved with pepper, though I haven���t seen this in ages. But this highlights why shoots feature so rarely in our food: only briefly available and sometimes tricky to prepare, they go against the year-round availability and ease of cooking which we demand of ingredients today.
We could learn from the Europeans who celebrate the season for asparagus, the best known cultivated shoot. Today there are Indian hotels which have imitation asparagus festivals with vegetables flown down from Europe, but they���d never cook the many excellent Indian shoots, which is further proof for me of how warped the hotel food business is. Locally grown green asparagus is increasingly available though, and can be good if young and thin. Rather than steaming them in the classic style, I wrap them in foil with olive oil, salt and pepper and bake them for an interesting finger food for parties.
Now in the market you���ll find pumpkin shoots, unnerving looking hairy things with thick leaves and tendrils that have to be peeled before cooking. In the hills of the North, you might find lingde, the fern shoots like the ones called fiddleheads abroad for their resemblance to elegantly curved violin ends. I���ve never eaten them, but my friend and fellow food-writer Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal raves about them. The hills seem to be the place for shoots because Nepali cooking uses them. The two books I have, Taste of Nepal by Jyoti Pathak and Joys of Nepali Cooking by Indra Majupuria extol recipes for fern, pumpkin and chayote (chow chow) shoots.
There are probably similar recipes for them across India (and if readers know, I���d like to hear about them). But because they are increasingly forgotten, you have to look in old recipe books, or reprints, like Renuka Devi Choudhurani���s Pumpkin Flower Fritters and Other Classic Recipes from a Bengali Kitchen, which has recipes for bottle gourd tendrils (laudoga) and arum shoots (mukhi kachu). But if there was one type of shoot I would select above all as a luxury, it would be the tendrils and young leaves of peas. These are valued in Chinese cooking, and Pathak���s book says kerau ka munta is a Nepali favourite.
Here in Mumbai, Samar Gupta of Trikaya Agro, who does such an incredible job supplying this market with interesting vegetables, says he���s tried them, with no great response. But he kindly supplies me with a few boxes and I���m in pea shoot heaven, steaming them, stirfrying them, happily crunching up the occasional small sweet pod that they conceal, but mostly just eating them raw. They are full of fresh green pea flavour, but whereas I often find peas themselves too starchy, this gave them in a wonderfully different (and very healthy) form. I can only hope that someday the market is full of green shoots like this!